Tags: convictions | innocence | wrongful

Hold Attys. General, Prosecutors Accountable for DNA Evidence

kamala harris when she was the attorney general of the state of california

Then-Calif. Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris spoke to reporters on July 11, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images).

By Monday, 31 August 2020 01:44 PM Current | Bio | Archive

In the constant mudslinging around the upcoming election, claims that one candidate may have formerly blocked the testing of crucial DNA evidence in the case of a death row inmate have stuck.

While this incident has been met with outrage and shock by many, to me it was a common story in our system.

Most Americans are under the impression that wrongful convictions are rare, that the appellate process meticulously checks for innocence, and that the system readily works to exonerate those it mistakenly convicts.

Wrong. Wrong. And wrong.

While it’s true that Kamala Harris blocked the testing of evidence in this case during her time as California's attorney general, significantly stalling the process if not preventing it all together, it isn’t an uncommon bone to find in the closet of someone who has climbed the prosecutorial ladder.

In fact, governors, attorneys general, judges, and district attorneys across this nation do the same thing every year.


I hate to inform you that — the intentions of our founders withstanding — our legal system is not structured in a way that prioritizes truth or incentivizes the righting of wrongs. Rather, like most operations of government, the system works to cover its own tracks, protect its interests, and uphold its edicts.

Convictions look good. They make the public feel safe. They lead to promotions and re-elections. Wrongful convictions, not so much. They make people look incompetent, often require monetary settlements (though not often enough) and prove that the government let violent people get away with a crime.

With one person exonerated from death row for every nine executions in this nation (and counting), it’s clear there’s incompetence and malfeasance to go around, but government actors work hard to block public knowledge of that fact.

Only in recent years did all 50 states enact post-conviction DNA statutes, after the traditional appellate process proved time after time that it was insufficient at giving defendants access to evidence that could prove their innocence. Still, those laws are limited in scope and in substance.

For one example, some states put the burden on the defendant to prove guilt of someone else, insisting they identify and implicate another individual.

Others prohibit a defendant who pled guilty from accessing the new standards at all (25 percent of wrongful convictions included a false confession).

Even worse, several states fail to preserve DNA evidence in the first place. All in all, it is still very difficult to have new evidence tested in cases, and an even higher barrier to have it introduced or to get a new trial in light of it.

Were it not for the outside, pro-bono work of groups like the Innocence Project, a large percentage of these cases would never see the light of day.

Even now, the likelihood you’ve heard of similar cases to Kevin Cooper’s (or the attorneys general and district attorneys working to block testing for them behind the scenes) is low.

Politicians don’t help the matter either.

Under the guise of cutting costs, serving victims’ families, or efficiency, many laws have been passed to gut or curtail the appellate process (and every year across state legislatures, a lawmaker will introduce bills to move further in this direction).

What those policies have created is a system of nitpicky regulations — random deadlines, difficult procedures, and complicated processes — that prevent people from proving their innocence.

If you have a good attorney, perhaps you can keep up and jump through all the hoops. But then again, if you have a private attorney, the odds of your ending up on death row in the first place are pretty low, as this is a system used almost entirely on the poor.

For those dependent on public defenders, who are shamelessly overworked and underpaid, it is unlikely their attorney will have the time and attention to detail necessary to help them.

Should Americans be outraged that Harris blocked evidence as an attorney general? Absolutely. But that outrage needs to also be directed at those still in the roles of power in our legal system.

Pay attention to cases in your area.

Watch the behavior of your attorney general and district attorney. Let them know you’ll be holding them accountable. For systems used to comfortably operating in darkness, a few people with spotlights can do a lot of damage.

Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Read Hannah Cox's Reports — More Here.

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Watch the behavior of your attorney general and district attorney. Let them know you’ll be holding them accountable. For systems used to comfortably operating in darkness, a few people with spotlights can do a lot of damage.
convictions, innocence, wrongful
Monday, 31 August 2020 01:44 PM
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